The Taliban launched a brazen assault in the Afghan capital on Tuesday, with a suicide bomber detonating his vehicle outside an election office on the edge of Kabul while two other gunmen stormed into the building, trapping dozens of employees inside and killing four people.
A candidate for a seat on a provincial council was among the dead, along with an election worker, another civilian and a policeman, said Kabul Police Chief Gen. Mohammed Zahir.
The attack triggered a standoff that lasted more than four hours. Zahir said another four people were wounded, including two policemen.
The assault was the latest in the armed group's violent campaign to sabotage the country's April 5 elections, when Afghans are to choose their next president and provincial council members. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the polls, and some have predicted the violence will result in poor voter turnout, marring a democratic transition and the new government’s credibility.
Since campaigning began in January, the Taliban have attacked candidates' convoys, campaign workers and killed one election commission official. Nine people were killed last Thursday when the Taliban attacked the Serena Hotel in Kabul. The nation's Interior Ministry said earlier Tuesday that nine senior employees of the hotel's contracted security company were detained and that the company had been negligent.
Fierce gunfire reverberated across the neighborhood of Karte Char throughout the afternoon Tuesday as heavily armed troops from the Afghan rapid response force surrounded the election office building, near the home of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
Ahmadzai was not at home at the time and was not a target of the attack, which focused on the local office of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, officials said.
Police official Sayed Gul Aga Hashmi said the assault started with one suicide bomber detonating his car, paving the way for other attackers to storm inside the building.
An election commission official said that about 20 election workers were trapped in the building; he later raised that figure to about 70. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media. He said spoke to a colleague who had hid in a bathroom with seven others and who told him there had been more employees elsewhere in the building.
The Taliban claimed responsibility in a statement to media, saying their target was the election office.
The building is in southwestern Kabul, near the historic war-damaged Darulaman Palace, built by Afghan King Amanullah. The landmark palace was heavily damaged during the Afghan civil war and stands empty.
Also Tuesday, attacks were carried out on a bank in northeastern Kunar province and on an Afghan outpost in the eastern province of Khost, on the border with Pakistan.
In Kunar three attackers with suicide vests stormed the government-owned Kabul Bank, killing two policemen and wounding three others who were guarding the premises in the provincial capital of Asadabad.
One attacker blew himself up, and the other two were shot and killed by police, said provincial police chief Abdul Habib Sayidkhili. None of the bank employees or customers were hurt, including seven policemen who were there to collect their monthly salaries. They all hid in the basement during the attack, Sayidkhili said.
In Khost, dozens of men armed with rocket propelled grenades and heavy machine guns laid siege to a border outpost. Provincial Police Chief Faizullah Ghyrat said two police border guards were killed, along with five attackers.
The Taliban took responsibility for the Khost attack.
Afghanistan's outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, told the United States in his final address to parliament earlier this month that U.S. troops could leave the country at the end of the year as planned, refusing to sign a security agreement that would allow U.S. forces to remain in the country indefinitely.
All 10 presidential candidates for the election next month have said they would sign the security agreement if elected. But Karzai does not want his legacy to include a commitment to extending a foreign military presence.
Al Jazeera and wires services